Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Transaction, by Guglielmo D'Izzia

The Transaction is a novel set in the 1980s in Sicily, with murder and the mafia as important (though off-stage) elements of the story. But D'Izzia's novel is less Montalbano than Pirandello, not so much a crime novel as a literary and philosophical tale. The author is from Sicily, but emigrated to Canada and wrote The Transaction was written in English (with the creative license of a writer, à la Nabokov, whose native language is not English).

The story concerns a businessman from Milan, sent to a small town in Sicily to finalize a land deal that would allow his company to open a branch in the south. But the journey is plagued with difficulties from the beginning: his train breaks down and he is late arriving in the town, only to find that his contact there has been shot dead. From there, he wanders from one hostile encounter to another.

The narrative is in the first person, and there are hints that the narrator is creating some of the hostility himself, through his manner and attitude, And when the obstacles to his mission seem insurmountable, he remains in the town, courting hatred and danger, well beyond any reasonable time, despite insults and injuries.

The text is very detailed, evoking the claustrophobic Sicilian town vividly. The story is told clearly, though without a lot of forward motion, and I was pulled right along to the end. A major theme and characteristic element of the story (and this is hardly a spoiler) is that the "transaction" of the title never happens. The ending is, in fact, quite puzzling, leaving the reader to decide if the narrator is suicidal, infatuated, or perhaps insane.

Sunday, December 06, 2020

The Second Life of Inspector Canessa, by Roberto Perrone

Roberto Perrone's The Second Life of Inspector Canessa is the second book in a new series from Walter Presents, which is the BBC's excellent series of crime TV series from around the world, and Pushkin Press. Perrone's novel, originally published in Italian in 2017, deals with the aftermath of the "years of lead," the period of terrorism (from the left and the right) in the 1970s and 80s, viewed from the perspective of today. Canessa, a retired Carabiniere, is suddently called back from his calm new life as a restaurateur in a remote coastal village, when his estranged brother is killed alongside a famous terrorist recently released from prison.


Most of the book is set in the present, with frequent flashbacks to explain Cane Canessa's career fighting the terrorists. And most of the present-day is the ex-cop's private search for the reasons behind his brother's death. The investigation is an interesting tour through the Italian justice system, and the story has lots of intrigue and a good bit of shooting. Overall the book is a satisfying introduction to what has become a series featuring perrone, though I have a couple of reservations. The first thing is that young women seem always to be compellingly attracted sexually to the old men ocupying most of the key roles in the story. Some of the wome of the women clearly have financial motives, a few have professional motives, but especially in Canessa's case, young (much younger than him) women are throwing themselves at him in a way that stretches credibility and also reinforces what is altogether a limited sccope of action for the women in the book. Canessa also possesses superhuman powers, it seems, when people are trying to kill him (in a shower of fire from AK47s, for example), but that's just a quibble.

So I would recommend the book for a glimpse into a segment of Italian history, but I would hope for some more realistic and sympathetic female characters in the sequels.

Friday, December 04, 2020

Black and Gold: Two classic noir noves

These two noir classics are firmly placed in their time: Cornell Woolrich published The Bride Wore Black (under the pseudonym William Irish) in 1940 (it was made into a film in 1968 by Francois Truffaut). Dolores Hichens published Fool's Gold in 1958 (and it was filmed by Jean-Luc Godard in 1964 as Bande à part or Band of Outsiders). Both films significantly differ from the original novels, but that's another story.

Black is a classic revenge story, though we don't know the details of the original offense until the end. The bride systematically murders the men on her list, but the police cannot find the connection among them. Each murder occupies a chapter, with the leading lady taking various roles in each. Some of the means of execution seem a bit far-fetched (she doesn't plan them so. much as seize on the means at hand, and finding the creative means that she uses stretches the imagination of the reader a bit).  But Woorich is a master of the genre, and holds our attention nonetheless, and the final chapter includes several surprises, leading us through to the end. The setting varies from urban to rural to wilderness retreat, all vividly of the era of the '40s.

Fools' Gold evokes the California of the '50s, but not the glittery Hollywood California: the setting is hardscrabblek semi-urban, with a link to various criminal gangs of the area and as far afield as Las Vegas. But the focus is on a young man on the make, self confident and charismatic, who seduces an old friend and a young woman to help him steal a stash of money that the girl knows about (in the house of her guardian, an older woman).

In classic noir fashion, the caper starts almost immediately to slip out of control and then tip over into chaos. The story has an inevitability anchored in the personalities of the main characters and in the social milieu. One interesting aspect of the novel is that it has a long tail--once the caper has already played out, Hichens follows her characters as they disperse around California and each in his or her own way deal with the collapse of the scheme and of their future.

Godard made the story into a charming paen to youth, with a famous dance sequence in a bar and a furious race through the Louvre. French milieu matches the American original, in terms of class and misfortune, but Hichens original is darker, more true to noir and to the story itself.


Sunday, November 29, 2020

New Tana French, The Searcher

 My review of Tana French's new novel, The Searcher, is now live at the Los Angeles Review of Books:


Friday, September 18, 2020

Two revived Maigrets

I was lucky enough to get e-galleys for two forthcoming Penguin editions of classic Maigret novels in Penguin's project of publishing all of them. The two I read in the past couple of weeks are Maigret and the Killer and Maigret's Childhood Friend, two novels from the late '60s that have several interesting things in common. But before talking about links between the two, I have a few comments about reading Simenon after a long period of not reading him.

I had forgotten how visual Simenon's writing is. Both these novels, especially in the first half of the books, is full of visual details and vivid descriptions of the streets of Paris and the denizens thereof. As is common in the Maigret books, the latter half of the books is mostly interviews or interrogations, and Maigret's musings about the cases, in writing that is still vivid, but more verbal than visual.

Maigret has a peculiar relationship with a suspect in each of the two novels I read. In Killer, the detective establishes communication with the murderer and has evidence in hand that, if published in the newspapers, would most likely lead to his identification. But Maigret holds off, and ultimately even welcomes the killer into his own house. I'll leave it to you to discver why the policeman proceeds in this peculiar manner.

In Childhood Friend, the titular friend is a comic figure, and the whole novel has a comic, even farcical, quality. And the friend is the clear suspect in the murder of his lover (who has four other lovers, only one of whom knows about the others--one of the farcical qualities of the story). But Maigret is not defending his friend--he seems to have contempt for him, and he was not even really a friend, though he was a classmate in the rural town where they grew up. Again, you'll need to read the book to discover the detective's reason for holding off on the arrest of this non-friend, against all of the evidence.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Two newly translated Italian novels (not crime fiction)

Gianrico Carofiglio is, among other things, a crime fiction writer, but his newly translated novel, Three O'Clock in the Morning, only shows a momentary. crime. The pseudonymous Elena Ferrante does not write crime fiction, but there are several crimes lying behind the story of her new novel, The Lying Life of Adults. Both are extremely succesful writers in their native Italy and beyond.

Three O'Clock is adventure, in a sense: a teenage boy who has been suffering with epilepsy travels with his father to a famous clinic in Marseilles, for a final meeting with the doctor who will let him know about his future with the disease. The doctor persuades them to try what is essentially an experiment, a stress test: to stay in Marseilles two additional nights, without sleep and without medication.

Carofiglio follows their adventure as both an experience in itself and the process of a somewhat estranged father and son getting to know one another for the first time. The result is engaging and intriguing,  essentially a philosophical novel without any heavy baggage but with numerous excursions into significant thoughts and emotions.

Ferrante's novel revisits some of the themes of her famous Neapolitan Quartet, but

with several significant differences. The narrator is looking back at a significant block of her teenage years, from 12 to 16, and her foil in these years is not a genius friend (the "amica geniale of the series) but an aunt, her father's sister, who had previously been a kind of family ogre or boogyman, but a casual remark by her father thrusts the daughter and the aunt together and begins an involving and even riveting story.

This is also a philosophical novel in many ways, but as always with Ferrante, the language is simple and yet beautiful. She doesn't challenge the reader with deep thoughts, she leads us through the thoughts and emotions of her characters (mainly the narrator and her former self as a girl). This is a bit shorter than the individual novels of the series, but covers significant territory, and continues the brilliance of Ferrante's work.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures by Jennifer Hofmann

 Jennifer Hofmann's new book is in a way a spy novel, but more accurately a novel about a domestic spying agency: The Stasi of East Germany, just hefore the fall of the Wall. The main character, Bernd Zeiger, is the author of the agency's manual for the Standardization of Deoralization Procedures, made up of guidelines for both interrogation of prisoners and the subjugation of the population in general. He is more a bureaucrat than a spy or an evil genius, and now he's at the end of his career (and of his tether). A fellow officer asks him to find his missing son, and points out that despite the secret police's vast structure of surveillance, there is a small number of citizens (including the daughter) who have disappeared without a trace (not defected, drowned in the river, or shot trying to escape over the Wall). Zeiger discovers that a young woman he has been looking for (Lara, a waitress he befriended who has not shown up for work lately) is also on the list. Zeiger begins to search for Lara rather than the missing daughter, and along the way he searches his memory and we discover many strange things about Zeiger, Lara, and a mysterious scientist who (maybe) knows something about teleportation (knowledge that brings him to the unfortunate attention of the Stasi). Shifting among these characters and the deteriorating social situation of the end of state conrol in East Berlin, the reader is kept off balance through a series of stories and revelations and a final escape (of a sort) that gives the sometimes comic, sometimes grim story a quality of fable or allegory. Hofmann holds the reader's attention throughout, and the story, while not at all a conventional spy story or detective story, remains fascinating.